Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“He knew at once what was happening…”

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"He knew at once what was happening..."

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 38. You can read the earlier installments here

In the workroom of the famed movie editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who remains one of my cultural heroes, there hangs a framed brass “B.” When asked what it means, Murch explains, in the paraphrase offered by Charles Koppelman in Behind the Seen:

Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable. One can be happy with that. Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods—it’s beyond your control. If you start to think that the gods are smiling, they will take your revenge. Keep your blade sharp. Make as good a film as you know how.

Ideally, we’d like to get the highest grade for every aspect of our work, but in reality, there will always be compromises. Part of the challenge of being a writer is focusing on what matters and refining those crucial parts until they reach their peak potential. Given constraints of time, energy, or space, this sometimes means that certain other elements will receive less attention. And while you always hope that any shortcuts you’ve taken will go unnoticed by the reader or be rendered invisible by distance, this is’t always true.

One of the hidden pitfalls of appreciating the importance of multiple revisions is the idea, or illusion, that you can fix any problems in the rewrite. Occasionally I’ll get stuck on some small point while writing—usually centering on how to get the characters from where they are now to where they need to be—and insert a makeshift solution for the first draft, trusting that if it doesn’t ring true on rereading, I’ll have plenty of time to come up with something better later. On the whole, it’s a good strategy; the alternative, as I’ve learned from hard experience, is an unfinished story, as you get hung up on solving any minor issues at hand before you go any further. I’ve argued many times that the answer to a seemingly unsolvable problem in Chapter 1 might become obvious by Chapter 20, but only if you’ve written the eighteen chapters in between, and I’ve generally done fairly well by trusting in the taste or ingenuity of the version of myself who will exist six months down the line. But sometimes I’ll go back and read something in print and wish I’d tried a little harder.

"Ilya took a step back..."

If there’s a sequence in City of Exiles that I’ve always thought was a little weak, it’s the section in Chapter 38 in which Ilya is attacked by another inmate at Belmarsh. The scene is there for sound narrative reasons: I’ve spent much of the novel building up the idea that Ilya has been thrown among enemies, and I couldn’t go to the end of the story without following through on those implications. The attack also occurs at the right place in the plot, at a moment when events are accelerating elsewhere and the other players have a strong reason for wanting to take Ilya down. That said, the execution of the moment itself isn’t particularly satisfying. The violence is borderline lurid, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of new ideas. Worst of all, Ilya’s attacker, a sinister inmate nicknamed Goat, is a nonentity. We don’t know much about him aside from a few ominous glimpses, and I didn’t take the time to work out who he was or where he came from. I try to come up with something a least a little distinctive even for minor characters, but I must have been distracted or careless here, so he doesn’t come off as a person so much as a plot point.

As a result, this is one corner of the story that I wouldn’t mind being given the chance to revise, although that ship has long since sailed. In my defense, I can plead all kinds of extenuating circumstances: I had about nine months to take this novel from outline to delivered draft, which remains by far the most compressed timeline I’ve ever had, and I was more concerned with delivering on the big moments. Even if the material here isn’t great, at least it’s over quickly, and it gets us to where we need to be in the next chapter. Of course, a reader isn’t particularly interested in how resourceful the novelist had to be to get a draft delivered on time; it’s only the finished work that counts. And I can’t help feeling that this could have been a big moment if I’d handled the buildup more capably. It’s possible that I’m exaggerating its shortcomings, and in practice, I suspect that most readers move past it without much thought either way. Still, I can’t help but see it as a lapse in what I otherwise think is a pretty good novel. Sometimes you just do what you can, take your B, and move on. And fortunately, it gets a lot better from here…

Written by nevalalee

July 10, 2014 at 9:56 am

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